For years, English Partnerships was widely criticised as an irrelevance. After Gordon Brown’s spending review, however, it has £30bn of land in the bank and big plans for developing it. We report on what’s coming next

Not so long ago, English Partnerships seemed set for the scrapheap. Regeneration experts were sick of it, hardly any of its long heralded flagship projects seemed to get off the ground and a government review had just told it to stop poking its nose into sites it didn’t own.

Three years later and it’s all changed. The government has regained its faith in the agency and has beefed up its role, turning it into the UK's key regeneration force. A further two things happened last week that will have had Margaret Ford, EP’s feisty Scottish chair, and David Higgins, its Australian chief executive, cracking open the single malt and Castlemaine XXXX. First, EP's annual report announced an 80% hike in its investment programme for the past 12 months (see the key figures from EP's annual report, in factfile below). Second, chancellor Gordon Brown's spending review last week seems to cast EP with a central role in government policy implementation.

Brown wants the state to raise £30bn in the next three years by selling off public sector land. To give some idea of the scale of what could be done, the Department of Health could sell 16,000 ha on 100 sites in and around major cities. And EP will oversee that process. Higgins says EP’s role in disposing of land will drive the government's housing growth plans. “We used to get very frustrated when key sections of land were sold with no outputs for the government,” he says. “The two policies were not meshing. Now we can sell the land, get the cash and create sustainable housing for key workers.”

EP's role will be that of a facilitator or broker: it will oversee the national register of all public sector land to go on the market: so far, 20 public sector agencies have listed 850 sites with a total area of 2800 ha, 300 of which are in the South-east. “We now act as a broker with other government departments who intend to dispose of land or surplus buildings,” says Ford.

What this means is that EP now holds the whip hand every time the government sells off land. This unites the policies for land disposal and housing: EP can ensure that the developers that buy the land are committed to well-designed, high-density housing for sustainable communities. It can also insist on the use of design codes and “modern methods of construction”, which is Whitehall’s preferred term for prefabrication.

Trevor Beattie, EP's director of corporate strategy, stresses the importance of sustainable communities: “Nobody’s been taking that broker's role up till now,” he says. “Now we are at a stage where we can look at the disposal strategy and link it in to the sustainable communities agenda.”

In addition to acting as a broker for state-owned land, EP will be transferring land under its own control. In its previous incarnation as the Commission for the New Towns, EP acquired the rights to land in England's 21 new towns, which it is to release gradually over the next few years. Last year, it set up an asset transfer team to work with each new town local authority to shift some of its smaller parcels of land, such as verges, and roundabouts, over to regeneration projects. The idea is that these small parcels will be combined with the larger sites released from big sales by the Department of Health or the Ministry of Defence.

Now we can sell the land, get the cash receipts and create sustainable housing for key workers

David Higgins, English Partnerships

The template for this has been in Bracknell, in Berkshire, where a 44 ha chunk of MoD land was recently acquired by EP for development. Ask Higgins how much EP land there is in Bracknell and he will produce a map showing a large number of tiny plots that can be bundled up and sold off with ministry land. EP is presently seeking a developer for the project.

Some regeneration professionals have attacked it for taking too long to put together the competition for a developer. And despite the scale of its plans, EP still has a reputation for passivity among some in the industry. One source says: “It’s the greatest recovery since Lazarus.

EP did absolutely bugger all for years, then suddenly Prescott descended and said they were the main delivery tool for his sustainability agenda. It’s quite amazing – they did nothing to earn it.”

Tony Pidgley, the managing director of Berkeley Group, argues that EP is right to take its time, provided that its preparation results in an end product. “What gets forgotten is that nothing’s been happening on the [Bracknell] site for five years,” he says. “EP’s not doing anything wrong: it’s got to be a bonus for the area.”

It is likely that the Bracknell model will be extended to the government’s growth areas. Development will be targeted at state-owned brownfield areas, but those near new towns such as Harlow and Basildon in Essex will be particularly ripe as EP will combine the public sector land with its own holdings.

So after a long time out in the cold, EP looks to be getting back into the corridors of power. Don’t be surprised if you see Margaret Ford sharing a wee dram with her fellow Scot at Number 11 in the future. After all, she owes him £30bn.

English Partnership in figures

3085 houses started on site, 1066 affordable

1093 houses completed, 312 affordable

£384,000m of private investment stimulated

378 ha of brownfield land reclaimed and/or serviced

232,000 m2 of floorspace for business use

Whatever happened to the Millennium Communities?

The Millennium Communities have been limping along since 1997. Just 668 homes have been built at Greenwich in south-east London out of a target of 6000 by 2010. The continuing problems of trying to establish sustainable communities at unprepossessing areas such as Allerton Bywater – aka Allerton Backwater – have left many regeneration professionals weeping into their masterplans.

English Partnerships’ Margaret Ford took one look at the programme at the beginning of this year and demanded an inquiry. This "stock-take" will report back soon and, although it is unlikely to shut any of the sites (the others are in King's Lynn in Norfolk, east Manchester, Telford in Shropshire, Hastings in East Sussex and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire), it will report in frank terms on what has failed since 1997. "I absolutely share the frustration that, after seven years, there are not a lot of tangible outcomes to go out and celebrate," says Ford.

To hurry things along, EP has appointed Stephen Hills its Millennium Communities tsar. He has been working as an adviser to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's neighbourhood renewal unit and has been development director at the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust. Hills will be charged with placing a judiciously aimed boot up the seven Millennium Communities and with implementing the ODPM's policy of using modern methods of construction, design codes and energy efficiency.